North Korea ‘declines’ South Korea media for nuclear site event; China urges ‘stability’

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in deliver a statement at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters

By Heekyong Yang

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has declined to accept a list of South Korean journalists hoping to observe the closure of its nuclear test site, South Korea said on Friday, raising new questions about the North’s commitment to reducing tension.

North Korea had invited a limited number of journalists from South Korea and other countries to witness what it said will be the closing of its only nuclear weapons test site at Punggye-ri next week.

The North Korean offer to scrap the test site has been seen as major concession in months of easing tension between it, on the one hand, and South Korea and the United States on the other.

But the remarkable progress appears to have been checked in recent days with North Korea raising doubts about an unprecedented June 12 summit in Singapore between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, and calling off talks with the South.

The South Korean Unification Ministry, which handles dealings with the North, said on Friday North Korea had “declined to accept” the list of journalists submitted by the South for the test site dismantling.

The ministry did not elaborate but the North Korean decision is likely to raise doubts about its plan for the test site.

Trump on Thursday sought to placate North Korea after it threatened to call off the June summit, saying Kim’s security would be guaranteed in any deal and his country would not suffer the fate of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, unless that could not be reached.

North Korea had said on Wednesday it might not attend the Singapore summit if the United States continued to demand it unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal, which it has developed in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions to counter perceived U.S. hostility.

On Thursday, North Korea’s chief negotiator called South Korea “ignorant and incompetent” and denounced U.S.-South Korean air combat drills and threatened to halt all talks with the South.

Trump, in rambling remarks in the White House’s Oval Office, said as far as he knew the summit was still on track, but that the North Korean leader was possibly being influenced by Beijing.

But he also stressed that North Korea would have to abandon its nuclear weapons and warned that if no deal was reached, North Korea could be “decimated” like Libya or Iraq.

‘PEACEFUL MEANS’

China, responding to U.S. President Donald Trump suggestion that Beijing may be influencing North Korea’s new hardline stance, said on Friday it stands for stability and peace on the Korean peninsula and for settlement of confrontation over its development of weapons through talks.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, asked about Trump’s comments, said China’s position had not changed and he reiterated that it supported the goal of denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.

“We are consistently supporting all relevant parties in resolving the peninsula issue through political consultations and peaceful means,” Lu told a regular briefing.

Kim has made two visits to China recently for talks with President Xi Jinping, including a secretive train trip to Beijing in late March, his first known visit outside North Korea since coming to power.

He flew to the port city of Dalian this month.

Both times, Kim’s encounters with Xi were cast by Chinese state media as friendly. They included beachside strolls and Xi saying that previous generations of North Korean and Chinese leaders had visited each other as often as relatives.

The warmth between the two leaders marks a sharp reversal in what had been months of frosty ties, as China ratcheted up sanction pressure on North Korea in response to its relentless missiles and nuclear tests last year.

China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and considers it an important security buffer against the U.S. military presence in region.

What had seemed until this week to be rapidly warming ties between North Korea, on the one hand, and South Korea and the United States on the other, had fueled fears in Beijing that it might be left out of a new deal on the peninsula, according to analysts.

(Additonal reporting by Micheal Martina, in BEIJING; Writing by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Josh Smith, Robert Birsel)

North Korea says will stop nuclear tests, scrap test site

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

By Soyoung Kim and Cynthia Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Saturday it would immediately suspend nuclear and missile tests, scrap its nuclear test site and instead pursue economic growth and peace, ahead of planned summits with South Korea and the United States.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country no longer needed to conduct nuclear tests or intercontinental ballistic missile tests because it had completed its goal of developing the weapons, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

Kim is scheduled to hold talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in next week and with U.S. President Donald Trump in late May or early June.

The pledge to halt the development of nuclear weapons, initiated by his grandfather, would mean a significant reversal for Kim, 34, who for years has celebrated such weapons as a pillar of his regime’s legitimacy and power.

A testing freeze and commitment to close the test site alone would fall short of Washington’s demand that Pyongyang completely dismantle all its nuclear weapons and missiles.

But announcing the concessions now, rather than during summit meetings, shows Kim is serious about denuclearisation talks, experts say.

“The northern nuclear test ground of the DPRK will be dismantled to transparently guarantee the discontinuance of the nuclear test,” KCNA said after Kim convened a plenary session of the Central Committee of the ruling Worker’s Party on Friday.

The North’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The Pyunggye-ri site is North Korea’s only known nuclear test site. All of its six underground tests were conducted there, including the last and largest in September.

APPLAUSE FROM TRUMP

Trump welcomed the statement and said he looked forward to a summit with Kim.

“North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress! Look forward to our Summit,” Trump said on Twitter.

South Korea said the North’s decision signified “meaningful” progress toward denuclearisation of the peninsula and would create favorable conditions for successful meetings with it and with the United States.

China, North Korea’s sole major ally, has been frustrated by its defiant development of weapons and welcomed the announcement, saying it would ease tension and promote denuclearisation.

“The Chinese side believes that North Korea’s decision will help ameliorate the situation on the peninsula,” a foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, said in a statement.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it welcomed the announcement by North Korea and called on the United States and South Korea to reduce their military activity in the region.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also welcomed the North Korean statement but said it must lead to action.

“What’s important is that this leads to complete, verifiable denuclearisation. I want to emphasize this,” Abe told reporters.

Australia and Britain were also cautious.

The British government said in a statement that Pyongyang’s commitment was a positive step and hoped it indicated “an effort to negotiate in good faith”.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said “verifiable steps” would be needed to ensure testing had indeed been halted.

The European Union’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said North Korea’s move was a positive step and called for an “irreversible denuclearisation” of the country.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said North Korea’s announcement was a step in the right direction but it must “disclose its complete nuclear and missile program in a verifiable way”.

EVIDENCE

“We’re all looking for evidence that Kim is really serious about negotiations, and announcements like this certainly suggest he is, and that he is trying to make clear to the world that he is,” said David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

North Korea has said its nuclear and missile programs are necessary deterrents against U.S. hostility. It has conducted missile tests with the aim of being able to hit the United States with a nuclear bomb.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

The tests and escalating angry rhetoric by Trump and Kim raised fears of war until, in a New Year’s speech, the North Korean leader called for a reduction in military tensions.

He sent a delegation to the Winter Olympics in the South in February, leading to a thaw in relations with his old enemies.

Nam Sung-wook, professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University in Seoul, said it was “sensational” that Kim had personally declared plans to suspend nuclear development, but added that his remarks left questions.

“It still does not seem clear if it means whether the North will just not pursue further development of its nuclear programs in the future, or whether they will completely shut down ‘all’ nuclear facilities. And what are they going to do with their existing nuclear weapons?” Nam said.

Many U.S. officials and experts doubt Kim’s sincerity about denuclearising, viewing the recent flurry of diplomacy as a ploy to win relief from economic sanctions.

U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea after its first nuclear test in 2006 and extended over the past decade have banned critical exports such as coal, iron ore, seafood and textiles while limiting oil imports.

That has threatened the policy of “byungjin” – simultaneous military and economic development – that Kim has adopted since taking power in 2011.

Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said he did not believe Pyongyang was ready to give up its nuclear weapons.

“Kim is just saying that now that the nuclear development is complete, he will put all the efforts toward building an economy,” Koh said.

(Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang and Ju-min Park in SEOUL, Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Alana Schetzer in MELBOURNE; Editing by Robert Birsel, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Andrew Roche)

Poisoned Russian agent Sergei Skripal is getting better fast, hospital says

Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants' cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia August 9, 2006. Kommersant/Yuri Senatorov via REUTERS

By Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal is no longer in a critical condition and his health is improving rapidly more than a month after he was poisoned with a nerve agent in England, the British hospital treating him said on Friday.

Skripal, 66, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of spies to Britain’s foreign spy service, and his daughter Yulia were found slumped unconscious on a public bench in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain blamed Russia for the poisoning, the first known offensive use of such a nerve agent on European soil since World War Two. Moscow denied any involvement and suggested that Britain had carried out the attack to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.

“He is responding well to treatment, improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition,” Christine Blanshard, Medical Director at Salisbury District Hospital, said in a statement.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said the Skripals were poisoned with Novichok, a deadly group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s.

Russia has said it does not have such nerve agents and President Vladimir Putin said it is nonsense to think that Moscow would have poisoned Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter.

A British judge said last month, nearly three weeks after the attack, that it might have left them with compromised mental capacity and that it was unclear whether they would recover.

The attack prompted the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War as allies in Europe and the United States sided with May’s view that Moscow was either responsible or had lost control of the nerve agent.

But Moscow has hit back by expelling Western diplomats, questioning how Britain knows that Russia was responsible and offering its rival interpretations, including that it amounted to a plot by British secret services.

Both Moscow and London have accused each other of trying to deceive the world with an array of claims, counter-claims and threats.

“PLAYING WITH FIRE”

At a session of the executive of the global chemical weapons watchdog this week, Russia called for a joint inquiry into the poisoning of the Skripals, but lost a vote on the motion.

At a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday, Russia warned Britain that “you’re playing with fire and you’ll be sorry” over its accusations.

Given the twists and turns in the affair, British and Russian diplomats have variously claimed the mystery to be worthy of Sherlock Holmes or of an Agatha Christie whodunit.

In an exchange at the United Nations, the ambassadors of Britain and Russia quoted extracts from “Alice in Wonderland” at each other.

The hospital in Salisbury said it was providing the medical update in response to “intense media coverage yesterday.”

Russian state television reported that Yulia had phoned her cousin in Russia and told her that she and her father were both recovering and that she expected to leave hospital soon.

Yulia’s health has improved rapidly. On Thursday, she issued a statement through British police to thank hospital staff and people who came to her help when “when my father and I were incapacitated”.

Sergei Skripal, who was recruited by Britain’s MI6, was arrested for treason in Moscow in 2004. He ended up in Britain after being swapped in 2010 for Russian spies caught in the United States.

Since emerging from the John le Carre world of high espionage and betrayal, Skripal lived modestly in Salisbury and kept out of the spotlight until he was found poisoned.

British police believe a nerve agent was left on the front door of his home. Skripal’s cat was put down by British authorities. His guinea pigs were discovered dead.

“When a vet was able to access the property, two guinea pigs had sadly died,” a British government spokeswoman said.

“A cat was also found in a distressed state and a decision was taken by a veterinary surgeon to euthanise the animal to alleviate its suffering,” the spokeswoman said.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Security advisers from U.S., South Korea, Japan meet on North Korean summits: Seoul

FILE PHOTO: Shotaro Yachi speaks with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi (not pictured) during a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, August 25, 2016. REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool

By Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – The top national security advisers of the United States, South Korea and Japan met at the weekend to discuss North Korea and the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said on Monday.

The two days of meetings could also help prepare the way for a possible meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

They were the latest in a flurry of diplomatic activity spanning Asia, the United States and Europe ahead of North Korea’s planned summits with the South and the United States.

South Korea’s National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong met U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Japan’s National Security Adviser Shotaro Yachi to discuss summit meetings between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the Blue House in Seoul said.

They also discussed the possible meeting between Trump and Kim, it said.

The security advisers from the three countries discussed the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”, agreed that “it was important to not repeat the mistakes of the past” and to work together closely, the Blue House said.

A senior North Korean diplomat left for Finland on Sunday for talks with former U.S. and South Korean officials, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.

That followed three days of talks between North Korean and Swedish foreign ministers on security on the Korean peninsula.

Sweden “engaged heavily” on the issue of U.S. detainees during the talks between North Korean and Swedish foreign ministers, CNN reported on Sunday, citing unidentified sources with knowledge of the negotiations.

North Korea is pursuing its nuclear and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions and has made no secret of its plans to develop a missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Sandra Maler and Paul Tait)

Trump says prepared to meet North Korea’s Kim in first-ever such parley

FILE PHOTO - A combination photo shows a Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) handout of Kim Jong Un released on May 10, 2016, and Donald Trump posing for a photo in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA handout via Reuters/File Photo & REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Christine Kim and Steve Holland

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said he was prepared to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in what would be the first face-to-face encounter between leaders from the two countries and could mark a breakthrough in a standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons.

Kim had “committed to denuclearization” and to suspending nuclear and missile tests, South Korea’s National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong told reporters at the White House on Thursday after briefing Trump on a meeting South Korean officials held with Kim earlier this week.

Kim and Trump have engaged in an increasingly bellicose exchange of insults over the North’s nuclear and missile programs, which it pursues in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, before an easing of tension coinciding with last month’s Winter Olympics in the South.

“A meeting is being planned,” Trump said on Twitter after speaking to Chung, setting up what would be his biggest foreign policy gamble since taking office in January 2017.

Chung said Trump agreed to meet by May in response to Kim’s invitation. A senior U.S. official said later it could happen “in a matter of a couple of months, with the exact timing and place still to be determined.”

Both Russia and China, who joined years of on-again, off-again “six-party” talks, along with the United States, the two Koreas and Japan, aimed at ending the standoff, welcomed the new, positive signals after months of deteriorating relations between North Korea and the United States.

Trump has derided the North Korean leader as a “maniac,” referred to him as “little rocket man” and threatened in a speech to the United Nations last year to “totally destroy” Kim’s country of 26 million people if it attacked the United States or one of its allies.

Kim responded by calling the U.S. president a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who led the pursuit of detente with North Korea during his country’s hosting of the Winter Olympics, said the summit would set a course for denuclearization, according to a presidential spokesman. Trump had agreed to meet Kim without any preconditions, another South Korean official said.

Asian stock markets rose on the news, with Japan’s Nikkei <.N225> ending up 0.5 percent and South Korean stocks <.KS11> more than 1 percent higher. The dollar also rose against the safe-haven Japanese yen <JPY=>. U.S. stock index futures were little changed ahead of the market’s open Friday morning. [MKTS/GLOB]

“It’s good news, no doubt,” said Hong Chun-Uk, chief economist at Kiwoom Securities in Seoul. “But this will likely prove to be only a short-lived factor unless more and stronger actions follow.”

Trump had previously said he was willing to meet Kim under the right circumstances but had indicated the time was not right for such talks. He mocked U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in October for “wasting his time” trying to talk to North Korea.

Tillerson said earlier on Thursday during a visit to Africa that, although “talks about talks” might be possible with Pyongyang, denuclearization negotiations were likely a long way off.

‘NO MISSILE TESTS’

“Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze,” Trump said on Twitter on Thursday night. “Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached.”

A meeting between Kim and Trump, whose exchange of insults had raised fear of war, would be a major turnaround after a year in which North Korea has carried out a battery of tests aimed at developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

Trump’s aides have been wary of North Korea’s diplomatic overtures because of its history of reneging on international commitments and the failure of efforts on disarmament by previous U.S. administrations.

South Koreans responded positively to the news, with online comments congratulating Moon for laying the groundwork for the Trump-Kim talks. Some even suggested Moon should receive the Nobel Peace prize, although scepticism over previous failed talks remained.

North and South Korea, where the United Sates stations 28,500 troops, are technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a ceasefire, not a truce.

‘IT MADE SENSE’

Daniel Russel, until last April the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, the most senior U.S. diplomatic position for Asia, said he wanted to see detail and hear from North Korea on the plans.

“Also remember that (North Korea) has for many years proposed that the president of the United States personally engage with North Korea’s leaders as an equal – one nuclear power to another,” he said. “What is new isn’t the proposal, it’s the response.”

A senior administration official told Reuters that Trump agreed to the meeting because it “made sense to accept an invitation to meet with the one person who can actually make decisions instead of repeating the sort of long slog of the past”.

“President Trump has made his reputation on making deals,” the official said.

Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham said Trump’s firm stance on North Korea gave the best hope in decades to resolve the threat peacefully.

“A word of warning to North Korean President Kim Jong Un – the worst possible thing you can do is meet with President Trump in person and try to play him,” Graham said on Twitter. “If you do that, it will be the end of you – and your regime.”

Some U.S. officials and experts worry North Korea could buy time to build up and refine its nuclear arsenal if it drags out talks with Washington.

‘TANGIBLE STEPS’

In what would be a key North Korean concession, Chung, the South Korean official, said Kim understood that “routine” joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States must continue.

Pyongyang had previously demanded that such joint drills, which it has said it sees as a preparation for invasion, be suspended in order for any U.S. talks to go forward.

Tensions over North Korea rose to their highest in years in 2017 and the Trump administration warned that all options were on the table, including military ones, in dealing with Pyongyang.

Signs of a thaw emerged this year, with North and South Korea resuming talks and North Korea attending the Winter Olympics. During the Pyongyang talks this week, the two Koreas agreed on a summit in late April, their first since 2007.

Japan, however, remained cautious.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump, in a call on Thursday, vowed to continue to enforce sanctions until Pyongyang took “tangible steps … toward denuclearization,” the White House said in a statement late Thursday.

“Japan and the United States will not waver in their firm stance that they will continue to put maximum pressure until North Korea takes concrete action towards the complete, verifiable and irreversible end to nuclear missile development,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo.

(Reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL, and Jeff Mason, David Brunnstrom, Matt Spetalnick, Steve Holland, Yara Bayoumy and John Walcott in WASHINGTON; Additional reporting by Eric Beech, Mohammad Zargham, Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey in WASHINGTON, and Kaori Kaneko in TOKYO; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Syrian government ground forces attack Ghouta despite Russian truce plan

People watch as smoke rises in eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – Syrian government forces launched a ground assault on the edge of the rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave on Wednesday, seeking to gain territory despite a Russian plan for five-hour daily ceasefires, a war monitor and sources on both sides said.

Hundreds of people have died in 11 days of bombing of the eastern Ghouta, a swathe of towns and farms outside Damascus that is the last major rebel-held area near the capital.

The onslaught has been one of the fiercest of the civil war, now entering its eighth year.

The U.N. Security Council, including President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest ally Russia, passed a resolution on Saturday calling for a 30-day countrywide ceasefire, but it has not come into effect, with Moscow and Damascus saying they are battling members of terrorist groups excluded from the truce.

Russia has instead called for daily five-hour local ceasefires to establish what it calls a humanitarian corridor so aid can enter the enclave and civilians and wounded can leave.

The first such truce took place on Tuesday but quickly collapsed when bombing and shelling resumed after a short lull.

There were no air strikes during Wednesday’s five-hour ceasefire, but heavy bombardment resumed in the afternoon, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

There has been no sign of aid delivered to the besieged area.

Moscow and Damascus have accused rebels of shelling the corridor to prevent people leaving. Rebels deny this, and say people will not leave eastern Ghouta because they fear the government. A senior U.S. general accused Moscow of acting as “both arsonist and firefighter” by failing to rein in Assad.

Wednesday’s ground assault targeted the Hawsh al-Dawahra area at the eastern edge of the rebel-held area.

The Observatory reported advances by the government forces in the area, describing it as the resumption of an assault that first began on Feb. 25. It said rebels had inflicted heavy losses on government forces.

An official with one of the rebel groups in eastern Ghouta said fighters were battling to repel an attempted incursion, and characterized the battle as “back and forth”.

A commander in the military alliance that backs Assad said an elite unit of the Syrian army, the Tiger Force, was taking part in the assault and advances had been made.

France’s foreign ministry called on Russia and Iran, Assad’s other military ally, to exert “maximum pressure” on the Syrian government to implement the 30-day ceasefire.

But with no sign of decisive international pressure to stop the attack, eastern Ghouta appears on course to eventually meet the same fate as other areas won back by the government in lengthy, punishing assaults, where rebels and civilians who oppose Assad were finally evacuated in negotiated withdrawals.

Damascus appears to be applying tried and tested military means, combining air strikes and bombardment with ground assaults, as it did to win back eastern Aleppo in 2016.

A senior Western diplomat said Russia appeared intent on a repeat of Aleppo in eastern Ghouta by evacuating the area and then killing “the terrorists even if it’s not just Nusra”, a reference to a jihadist group with al Qaeda links.

US, RUSSIA CLASH OVER CHEMICAL WEAPONS

Diplomatic sources have said the chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, opened an investigation into attacks in eastern Ghouta to determine whether banned munitions were used.

The United States says it has evidence Syrian forces have used chlorine, which is permitted for civilian purposes but banned as a weapon, in attacks in eastern Ghouta and elsewhere.

U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood said on Wednesday that Russia has violated its duty to guarantee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and prevent the Assad government from using poison gas.

Syria agreed to give up its stockpile of poison gas and join the international chemical weapons ban in 2013 under a Russian-brokered deal that averted U.S. retaliatory air strikes after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people. Washington accused Damascus last year of again using nerve gas and carried out a round of air strikes as punishment.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syria had eliminated its poison gas stockpiles, and called allegations it was still using chemical weapons “absurd”.

Lavrov said militants entrenched in eastern Ghouta were blocking aid and the evacuation of people who want to leave. Moscow would continue to support the Syrian army in totally defeating the “terrorist threat”, Lavrov told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

A Syrian army officer told journalists insurgents had shelled the corridor again on Wednesday.

Rebels have intensified shelling of nearby government-held Damascus. A medical official in the capital said on Monday 36 people had been killed in four days. Damascus and Moscow say the campaign in eastern Ghouta is needed to halt such shelling.

The United Nations said on Tuesday it was proving impossible to aid civilians or evacuate wounded, and said all sides must abide by the 30-day truce sought by the Security Council.

The multi-sided Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the pre-war population of 23 million from their homes. Fighting has escalated on several fronts this year, with the collapse of Islamic State giving rise to conflict between other Syrian and foreign parties.

As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Afrin region.

(Reporting by Tom Perry, Laila Bassam and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva, John Irish in Paris; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Russian truce plan fails to halt bombing of Syria’s Ghouta

FILE PHOTO: A man inspects a damaged house in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Angus McDowall and Stephanie Nebehay

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – A Russian call for a five-hour truce on Tuesday failed to halt one of the most devastating campaigns of the Syrian war, where residents said government warplanes resumed striking the eastern Ghouta region on Tuesday after a brief lull.

Moscow and Damascus blamed rebels for the collapse of the truce, saying fighters had shelled a safe route intended for civilians to leave the enclave. The insurgents denied such shelling.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would press on with a plan to stage similar daily pauses in the fighting, allowing aid to be delivered to eastern Ghouta through what Russia describes as a humanitarian corridor.

The United Nations said it was proving impossible to aid civilians or evacuate the wounded, and said all sides must instead abide by a full 30-day ceasefire demanded by the U.N. Security Council.

“We have reports this morning there is continuous fighting in eastern Ghouta,” U.N. humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said. “Clearly the situation on the ground is not such that convoys can go in or medical evacuations can go out.”

Hundreds of people have died during 10 days of government bombardment of the eastern Ghouta, an area of towns and farms on the outskirts of Damascus. The assault has been among the most devastating air campaigns of a war now entering its eighth year.

With its Ghouta offensive, the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad is drawing on the military methods it has used to crush its opponents in other parts of Syria, including eastern Aleppo in late 2016.

Intensifying bombardment of the besieged area has been coupled with probing ground assaults to test rebel defenses.

With no sign of decisive international pressure to stop the attack, eastern Ghouta seems likely to meet the same fate as other areas won back by the government, where humanitarian corridors eventually became escape routes for defeated rebels.

“A concrete humanitarian corridor has been set up that will be used to deliver humanitarian aid, and, in the other direction, a medical evacuation can take place and all civilians who want to leave can,” Lavrov told a joint news conference in Moscow after meeting French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

ESCALATION

Residents in several towns in the eastern Ghouta described a brief pause in fighting, but said bombardment swiftly resumed. In the town of Hammouriyeh a man who identified himself by his first name Mahmoud told Reuters helicopters and warplanes were in the sky and conducting strikes.

Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman for the Civil Defence rescue service, which is funded by Western governments and operates in rebel areas, said artillery and air strikes had hit the region.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said helicopters and warplanes had struck four towns and artillery shelling killed one person.

A U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Saturday called for a 30-day ceasefire across the entire country, but did not specify when it should start. It excludes some militant groups which are among the rebels in eastern Ghouta.

That has meant the ceasefire has not been observed in practice. U.N. spokesman Laerke declined to comment on the Russian proposal for a five-hour truce, but called instead on all sides to obey the full 30-day ceasefire.

“It is a question life and death – if ever there was a question of life and death – we need a 30-day cessation of hostilities in Syria as the Security Council demands,” Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), told a Geneva briefing.

A rebel spokesman said people in eastern Ghouta did not want to leave the area despite the bombardment, because they feared arrest, torture or conscription by the government. Russia said it would guarantee the safety of any civilians who left.

Eastern Ghouta, where the U.N. says around 400,000 people live, is a major target for Assad, whose forces have clawed back numerous areas with military backing from Russia and Iran.

Rebels based in eastern Ghouta have intensified shelling of government-held Damascus. A medical official in the capital said on Monday 36 people had been killed in four days. Syrian state media reported eight people injured by rebel shelling on Tuesday. Damascus and Moscow say the campaign in eastern Ghouta is needed to halt such shelling.

Even before the latest bombardment of the besieged area began, there was growing international alarm over humanitarian conditions in the eastern Ghouta because of shortages of food, medicine and other essentials.

The multi-sided Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the pre-war population of 23 million from their homes. Fighting has escalated on several fronts this year, with the collapse of Islamic State giving rise to conflict between other Syrian and foreign parties.

As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Afrin region. Tensions have also flared between Iran and Israel, alarmed by Tehran’s influence in Syria. Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli F-16 earlier this month as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis, Dahlia Nehme and Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graff)

Turkey gains control of border strip inside Syria’s Afrin, sends special forces

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters sit at a back of a pick-up truck near the city of Afrin, Syria February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ellen Francis

ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Turkish army on Monday took control of the outer edge of Syria’s Afrin region, state media said, as Ankara said it was readying for a “new battle” by deploying police special forces.

The military and allied Syrian rebel factions pushed some Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters back from the frontier near the Turkish border, effectively creating a “crescent” of control on Syria’s side of the border, the state-run news agency Anadolu reported.

Since launching its operation in the northwest Syrian region, Turkey has captured 115 “strategic points” and 87 villages, Anadolu said.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG forces said Turkish warplanes had struck a village near Jandaris in the southwest of Afrin, killing five civilians.

A YPG-led alliance said its forces had responded in self-defense to Turkish attacks, and that fighting raged on multiple fronts around Afrin. Five Turkish soldiers were killed in the space of 24 hours, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said Turkish troops now held a continuous strip on the edge of Afrin.

The advance opens a corridor that links territory in Aleppo province under the control of rebels backed by Turkey with the insurgent stronghold of Idlib province.

Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey for three decades – though the groups say they are independent.

“NEW BATTLE APPROACHING”

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told the broadcaster NTV that the deployment of police special forces “is in preparation for the new battle that is approaching”.

Dogan news agency reported that gendarmerie and police special forces had entered Afrin from two points in the northwest, and said they would take part in urban fighting and holding villages that Turkish forces had seized.

Most of the larger towns in the region, including the town of Afrin itself, remain under YPG control.

Turkey says Saturday’s U.N. Security Council demand for a 30-day truce across Syria does not apply to its offensive in Afrin.

“Some regions such as eastern Ghouta are part of the U.N.’s ceasefire decision in Syria, but Afrin is not one of them,” said Bozdag, who is also the government spokesman. “The decision will not impact our Olive Branch operation … in the Afrin region.”

But French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday told Turkey the ceasefire did apply to Afrin.

The U.N. Security Council resolution demands all parties “cease hostilities without delay … for a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria”.

The cessation does not apply to military operations against Islamic State, al Qaeda and groups associated with them or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the Security Council.

The PKK is branded a terrorist group by the United States and European Union as well as by Turkey, but the YPG is Washington’s main military ally in northeast Syria.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul; Writing by Dominic Evans and David Dolan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

North Korea ‘months away’ from ability to hit U.S. with nuclear weapon: U.S. envoy

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood (R) waits next to U.S. Army Captain Murzban Morris of the Departement of Defense Joint Staff before their address on North Korea to the Conference on Disarmament at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland August 30, 2017.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korea is only months away from obtaining the capability to hit U.S. territory with a nuclear weapon and must be disarmed, a U.S. envoy said on Tuesday, dismissing Pyonyang’s diplomatic thaw with South Korea as a “charm offensive” that fooled no one.

In a diplomatic showdown at a U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, North Korea responded by blaming Washington for escalating confrontation, saying it was deploying nuclear assets including aircraft carriers near the divided peninsula and was considering a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang.

“North Korea has accelerated its provocative pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, and expressed explicit threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies in the region,” U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told the Geneva forum.

“North Korean officials insist that they will not give up nuclear weapons, and North Korea may now be only months away from the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles,” he said.

A new U.S. nuclear policy review outlined last week “reaffirms that North Korea’s illicit nuclear program must be completely, verifiably, and irreversibly eliminated, resulting in a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons,” he said.

Asked later what the basis was for the assessment that North Korea would soon be able to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon, he said he had “no new information to share”.

North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, twice last July. In November it tested the Hwasong-15, believed to be capable of reaching the continental United States. It is not yet believed to have the capability to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

North Korea is under tightening U.N. Security Council sanctions for its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But recent weeks have seen a thaw with South Korea, after Pyongyang agreed to send athletes to compete in the Olympic Games opening on Feb. 9 in the south.

“CHARM OFFENSIVE”

“What I would call ‘the charm offensive’ frankly is fooling no one,” Wood told the talks.

He also said arsenals in China and Russia were expanding, drawing rebukes from their respective delegations.

“Russia, China and North Korea are growing their stockpiles, increasing the prominence of nuclear weapons in their security strategies, and – in some cases – pursuing the development of new nuclear capabilities to threaten other peaceful nations,” Wood said.

“We are not going to stick our head in the sand, we are going to respond to these growing challenges,” he later told reporters.

North Korea accused the United States of seeking to aggravate the situation on the divided peninsula by “deploying large nuclear assets” nearby, laying the ground for a possible pre-emptive strike against it.

“In view of the nature and scale of U.S. military reinforcements, they are designed to make a pre-emptive strike against the DPRK,” North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol told the talks, referring to his country’s official name the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“U.S. officials including the defense secretary and the CIA director repeatedly talked about DPRK nuclear and missile threat to justify their argument for a military option and a new concept of a so-called ‘bloody nose’, a limited pre-emptive strike on the DPRK is under consideration within the U.S. administration,” Ju said.

He said President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine and U.S. nuclear superiority would endanger global peace and security and “trigger off a new nuclear arms race and could bring the whole world close to a horrible catastrophe”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Peter Graff)

Turkey dismisses French marks on Syria campaign as ‘insults’

A Turkish Army vehicle leaves from a military post near the Turkish-Syrian border in Kilis province, Turkey January 31, 2018.

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey on Thursday dismissed cautionary remarks from France about its military operation in northern Syria as “insults”, signaling continued strain between Ankara and its NATO allies over the incursion.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday warned Turkey that the operation in the northern Afrin region should not become an excuse to invade Syria and that he wanted Ankara to coordinate its action with its allies.

Turkey launched the air and ground offensive, dubbed “Operation Olive Branch”, nearly two weeks ago to target the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin. But the incursion has put pressure on relations with the West, particularly the United States, which has backed the Kurdish fighters and has its own troops on the ground supporting them in other parts of Syria.

“We consider a country like France giving us reminders about an operation we are carrying out in accordance with international laws to be insults,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara.

“We are using our right to self defense, this is in line with UN Security Council decisions and not an invasion. They shouldn’t be two-faced,” he said.

France, like the United States, has extended arms and training to a YPG-led militia in the fight against Islamic State in Syria. That has infuriated Turkey, which considers the YPG terrorists and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The PKK, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast.

Cavusoglu said Syrian peace talks in Geneva needed to be revived, adding that the Syrian government needed to start negotiating in order to do so, after a Russian-sponsored conference on reaching peace in Syria was held this week in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.

The talks, which Russia has called a Syrian Congress on National Dialogue, ended on Tuesday with a statement calling for democratic elections, but ignoring key opposition demands after a day marred by squabbles and heckling of the Russian foreign minister.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Peter Graff)